The stun of being one


I spent the last election night with a first-time voter. She had lived in this country for many years but had never taken out citizenship. Then, after two terms of the Howard government, she had sent in the papers, shook hands with the local mayor, accepted the certificate and registered with the electoral commission.

Finally polling day arrived. She found the polling station, accepted all the material from the campaign pamphleteers and excitedly, no enthusiastically, entered the polling station. It was all new to her. She smiled at the strange little man behind the polling counter with his metal ruler who drew a line through her name, she laughed at the stubby little lead pencil she was given to vote with, she struggled with the elephantine polling papers. She was even patient with the senior citizen who hadn’t been out of the house since the last election, who stank of stale urine and gave her the elbow when she tried to nip in front of his walking frame. She set herself up in the decidedly unstable cardboard booth that offered no privacy whatsoever. She overcame the terror of a potential donkey vote. She marked the paper, folded it into what seemed an extremely small bundle to insert into the appropriate counting box.

And then it was done. She had exercised her democratic right as a freshly-minted citizen. It was a euphoric moment of tangibly vocalising her individual opinion. It was a liberating moment of seizing back some control over the future course of the society in which she lived. It was a moment ringing with the erotic potential of an unknown future. She walked out of the polling station feeling sexy and powerful. She likened the experience to a party where someone stares into your eyes and ‘really listens to what you’re saying, you know?’. As the results of the voting began rolling in that night, and it became clear early that it was to be a third Howard government term, the newly consummated citizen began staring at the television in disbelief.

It wasn’t long before the tears began to flow. ‘It doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t make any difference at all,’ she wailed in a mantra and I, suffice to say, howled tears of laughter at her excruciating, existential moment of feeling the full weight of her own indisputable insignificance.

What Williamson got uncannily right all those years ago in Don’s Party is the way that election days, and nights, unerringly remind each one of us of our own appalling loneness. Isn’t that why all of Williamson’s characters become obsessed with having sex with one another and why you’re probably more likely to get lucky at an election night party than any other? Who wants to be reminded how singular you are when you’ve just participated in that mass ritual of annihilating individual significance that is democracy? Whether the party you voted for wins or not, whether you voted on policy or personality, whether you’re passionate about politics or it leaves you as bitter as the Reserve Banker who really determines interest rates, election night throws into relief where you sit and fit, or not, in a much bigger context. It’s intriguing, it’s absorbing and it’s completely terrifying to look at all those big gambling boards (otherwise known as electorates) and think about the millions of reasons why people are rationalising their choice (you can be reasonably sure that arts policy is not absolute front of mind).

I’ll spend this election night with my near-to-novice voting friend again. She believes that her one vote will make all the difference this year. She says she is one of millions of ones all joined in one voice to create change in this country. And maybe she’s right. One can only hope. Otherwise those election commentators are going to look a whole lot sexier than she ever noticed before.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.